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Disabled students encouraged to pursue science careers

Tuesday, August 08, 2000

By Carmen J. Lee, Post-Gazette Education Writer

For Rory A. Cooper, steering youngsters with disabilities into science and engineering careers just makes sense.

"Some kids with severe disabilities, such as those with severe cerebral palsy, are quite computer literate because they have to use computers at an early age," said Cooper, a professor and chairman of the department of rehabilitation science and technology at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

High school students with disabilities frequently are not given the same opportunities to pursue such professions and they usually need special encouragement to do so, according to a report by Cooper and Michael L. Boninger, associate professor and research director in Pitt's Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Department.

The report, published in a recent issue of IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology, focused on efforts to get more students with disabilities involved in the growing field of bioengineering, though the findings also apply to other science and engineering careers, Cooper said.

He and Boninger found that despite efforts by national health and science organizations to encourage students with disabilities to participate in science and engineering undergraduate programs, a shortage existed because the students lacked role models, opportunities for scientific experimentation and encouragement or awareness.

Cooper, who has been in a wheelchair for 20 years after being hit by a truck while riding a bicycle, said he and Boninger discovered how few students with disabilities were studying the sciences when trying to recruit undergraduates into their bioengineering and rehabilitation engineering programs.

The pool of possible undergraduate candidates with disabilities was so small that they realized they needed to look at working with high school students to plant seeds of interest in the fields.

"The technical barriers to science education for high school students with disabilities need to be overcome," Cooper said. "We must begin to effectively address the attitudinal barriers that discourage these students from pursuing a degree in bioengineering."

Many people don't think disabled individuals have the physical or communication abilities to do the work, he explained.

Also, while many devices are available to compensate for various disabilities, some school science equipment and laboratories are not accessible for students with disabilities.

To demonstrate that disabled youngsters are capable of doing work in science and engineering, Cooper and Boninger started a program four years ago in which they bring together high school students with disabilities and those who are not impaired to work on science projects for competitions.

One of the main contests the groups have entered has been For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology. The FIRST competition is a national robotics-building contest in which students are given six weeks to design and build a robot from an eclectic set of materials such as car seat motors, cordless drills and optical sensors.

Cooper said one year a student in a wheelchair participated who required a ventilator to breathe and could not help build the robot because he had extremely weak arms and legs. The youngster, however, was adept at using a computer design program and helped the team with the designing parts of the robot and with the documentation.

"With the use of head pointing and voice control, you still can use many of those kinds of [software] packages," Cooper said.

The program also promotes sensitivity and cooperation among students without disabilities.

James Hosfield, 20, a Pitt sophomore and an intern in Cooper's department, participated in a robotics program for two years when he attended Thomas Jefferson High School in the West Jefferson Hills School District.

Hosfield, who is not disabled, said the program showed him how individuals with disabilities could be involved in a science project.

"They did pretty much the same thing that everybody else did," he said.

More than 90 percent of the students involved in FIRST team projects have gone on to pursue engineering or technology degrees and 5 percent of those students selected bioengineering as their major.

Cooper and Boninger have had to raise $50,000 a year for the high school program and have donated their time to it. Cooper said this year will be the first time that they will receive some federal funding for it.

He added that they are trying to persuade national foundations to provide college scholarships and summer internships to high school students with disabilities and to find more corporate sponsors for their high school robotics team.

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